Rebooting Graduate Education in the Humanities

Boston — The last MLA session I attended brought together several major themes of this year’s conference: technology, graduate education, and alternative careers. Paul Fyfe introduced the panelists—a mix of faculty and graduate students—as “scholars who are actively creating the institutional conditions needed for any new curriculum to succeed.”

Matthew Jockers, co-founder with Franco Moretti of the Stanford Literary Lab, explained how the digital humanities had evolved organizationally from a desire to answer new kinds of research questions. For example, a normal graduate seminar might cover 10 novels; Jockers “assigned” more than a thousand novels to reimagine literary history on a different scale using what is now commonly called “distant reading” as a complement to the more familiar practice of “close reading.”

According to the Literary Lab’s Web site, “our main field of research is supratextual, and we aim at a type of geographical visualization that will reflect this interest—maps of genres, or tectonic shifts at the level of the generation.”

Jockers turned to question “How does this work fit into the careers of our graduate students?” since it was hard to find models in the humanities for collaborative, “lab based” projects of that kind. How would students’ work be assessed, and how would credit be allocated, particularly when projects involve many people of different ranks and develop over a period of years? How would projects be financed, given that graduate students in the humanities are usually supported for teaching rather than research?

The leaders of the Literary Lab gradually concluded that, rather than adapting to an existing model, graduate education, as it is currently constituted, would have to change. “When jobs in the humanities are rare,” Jockers said, “we have little to lose by rebooting grad education.” That has meant “relying less on long-winded seminar papers, obligatory review chapters, and the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of reading lists.”

Instead of a hierarchical teacher-student model, in which one person has knowledge that the other must acquire (and be tested on), the Literary Lab reconceptualized everyone as co-researchers, developing new knowledge together. If this approach means “the dissolution of the Ph.D. as we know it today, I am OK with that,” said Jockers. The Literary Lab did not set out to “shift the paradigm of graduate education”; that it has done so is “a beautiful accident.”

Kathie Gossett, an assistant professor of digital humanities at Iowa State University, observed some of the challenges faced by graduate students who are seeking to do innovative work in more traditional contexts. “Why should the dissertation be wedded to traditional book-culture formats?” she asked.

Gossett presented surveys showing that, even though there is strong support for humanities graduate students having opportunities to become more engaged with approaches that involve digital technology, most departments do not provide such opportunities: Essentially, graduate students have to find courses and mentors elsewhere. (The lack of departmental support is leading increasing numbers of students to international training events such as the Digital Humanities Summer Institute—helpful, of course, but not always connected with the culture of the home institution.)

Moreover, there are longstanding institutional policies that prevent graduate students in the humanities from developing digital work. For many students, it’s just not an option for the dissertation, just as digital work is often just a supplement to traditional publications for faculty on the tenure track. In the context of the MLA job scramble, Gossett noted how search committees ask for writing samples; they don’t know how to access or evaluate other forms of scholarship.

Working to deal with those challenges, Gossett is helping to develop an open-source project, backed by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities, called D3: Digital Dissertation Depository, which will enable digital dissertations, software, and simulations to be archived online.

Katina Rogers, a senior research specialist with the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI), and Praxis Program teams at the Scholars’ Lab presented a survey showing that graduate students’ career expectations are misaligned with their career outcomes.

A report on the 2011 Survey of Earned Doctorates shows that 43 percent of doctoral recipients have no employment at the time they receive their degree. But Rogers presented an SCI survey indicating that 74 percent of respondents entered graduate school with the expectation that they would become professors, and 80 percent reported “feeling fairly certain or completely certain” of achieving that outcome. At the same time, only 18 percent were satisfied with the preparation they received for careers besides being a professor.

Additional data Rogers presented suggest that graduate education—rebooted along the lines suggested by Jockers and Gossett—would allow humanities graduates to access a wider range of career options. For example, graduates in the humanities might normally be expected to have strong writing and research skills, but they may have less experience in project management. Rogers’s presentation can be found here.

After the session, I spoke with Matthew Gold, an associate professor and director of the Academic Commons at the City University of New York. “This is a moment in which we need to ask fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of graduate education in the humanities,” Gold said. “It was good to see concrete examples of institutions experimenting with new models, and even better to see them documenting their processes and conducting formal studies as they went along.”

Given the shortage of tenure-track positions, it makes sense to phase out the notion of graduate education in the humanities as preparation for a traditional career as a professor who writes papers, gives lectures, and grades examinations. It makes more sense to think about graduate training as leading to a variety of career options. Hopefully those changes will continue to be driven by student and faculty demand for the kinds of projects, opportunities, and proposals for reform that were on display at this panel.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker.

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